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Summary of the Last Chapter
Yuhan falls ill with blood poisoning as he is cared for by Iroh and Piandao in Shu Jing. He and Iroh eventually board a ship to the Northern Water Tribe, where Yuhan nearly dies and sees the old rebel that has always haunted his dreams. Instead of condemning him, however, the spirit of the rebel urges him to go back and save Ba Sing Se, and Yuhan survives with his life. Meanwhile, Hiroshu stumbles across a sickly Joo Dee, formerly known as Suyin, and takes interest in her past. He decides to join a mysterious organization in hopes of liberating Ba Sing Se.
"You've gotta try this, Suyin."
A slender young woman simply grinned as her rigid hands remained folded in her lap. Her eyes were wandering about the fancy restaurant, admiring the architecture of her perfect city. They eventually settled back upon the Dai Li agent sitting across the table, and she suddenly realized that he was trying to talk to her. "...I apologize. Were you addressing me, sir?"
"(Sigh) You've got to try this, Joo Dee," Hiroshu repeated, rolling his eyes as he lifted a shumai dumpling before her with his chopsticks. "Geez, you really don't respond to any other name, do you?" With that, he stuffed the entire dumpling into his mouth.
There was a very generous order of dim sum all over their table, the separate little plates ranging from dumplings to crab cakes to egg custards. Hiroshu's appetite was as impressive as his salary, after all.
Joo Dee simply smiled, her posture as stiff and mechanic as ever. "I will not consume any goods you purchased with your own money, sir," she told him. "Those resources belong to you." Her bright green eyes were annoyingly chipper.
"I don't care. You need to try some of these dumplings." Hiroshu was staring her down as if it were a matter of life or death. "They're too amazing not to try. Your life will be more fulfilled if you eat them."
"Sir, I respectfully refuse to take anything that is yours, including food."
His sage green eyes flared. "That's an order."
"I would happy to consume some of your food, sir."
Hiroshu shook his head with a chuckle as Joo Dee enthusiastically separated her chopsticks and picked a generous heaping of dumplings onto her plate, one by one.
It was one of many awkward lunches for which no agent besides Hiroshu could see any appeal. His new errand girl had become known before long; she tagged along with him pretty much everywhere he went in the city. The agents found it amusing, if not weird, though they believed that he honestly just needed a replacement for his fired patrol partner. (In other words, someone else who could survive his endless ramblings about food.)
Joo Dee chewed her expensive meal very mechanically, sitting rigidly upright the entire time and never even looking down whenever she picked up the next dumping to eat. She eventually finished and folded her hands back into her lap with a grin. "Any other requests, sir?"
"Oh, come on!" cried the Dai Li agent, throwing his stony hands up across from her. "No reaction at all? Weren't those the most amazing shumai you've ever had the joy of tasting?"
"Of course they were, sir." Joo Dee grinned even wider at his skeptical eyes.
"You're just saying that because you think that's what I want you to say." Hiroshu pointed an accusatory chopstick in her direction.
Her shiny brown hair brushed her shoulders as she cocked her head slightly to the side. "I'm sorry, did you expect me to judge the food otherwise?" she asked innocently. "I can deem it distasteful if you'd like."
"I apologize, sir."
Hiroshu casually shrugged it off. "Can't be helped." He paused somewhere in the middle of eating his egg custard when his gaze fell upon the window. "Hey, I know a cool place to hang out after this! Wanna check it out?"
"Of course, sir."
"...You're just saying that because I want to."
"Would you like me to say no?"
Yuhan's face dropped when the clearing came into view – the one that sported in its center an extremely dull, boring night fountain. Not a single candle was lit, and it was probably his organization's own fault. On certain nights, the Dai Li were paranoid enough of rebellion possibilities that they even found "preventing chances for easy torches" logical. Ergo, the Firelight Fountain was too dangerous.
Those uptight idiots! He let out a groan of disappointment.
A gentle hand, still clasped within his own, gave a little squeeze. "Yuhan, it's okay." No amount of disappointment over the fountain could dampen the warm feeling inside when he looked down at her face, into her soft hazel eyes. "This place is wonderful with or without the candles lit. I mean, it's always going to be, if..." Riya looked down with her shy confession, her cheeks flushing the slightest pink. "If I'm with you."
The reflection of the moon glistened within his eyes. "Riya..." Yuhan couldn't help the silly smile that stretched across his face. Turning away from her, though, he glared back towards the failure of a fountain. Riya deserved better than this! This whole blasted city was nowhere beautiful enough to be worthy of her, but the least it could do was cooperate with him for one measly fountain. "I still want you to see the candles when they're lit," he insisted. "It's just like the panda lilies; you see, a special girl deserves – erm..." He paused awkwardly as the butterflies returned, which only grew worse when she smiled at him. "Well, I'm going to make sure you see it."
With that, he released her hand – ever so softly – and stomped indignantly towards the fountain. Whipping out a dull pair of spark rocks from his pocket, he raised a foot to rest on the polished edge of the tiles, hunched over the water, and began to light the candles. One by one.
Behind him, Riya couldn't hold back her giggle by the time he attempted the 5th candle, which drifted off too far in its little boat and almost caused him to trip into the water from his pursuit. His arms waved about wildly to regain balance before he hopped backwards just in time. Riya quietly made her way back to his side as he sighed loudly, his shoulders slumped. "That was very sweet, Yuhan. The – well, four candles you lit." She took his hand again and followed with a little kiss on his cheek. "They're beautiful."
He smiled halfheartedly in return as he tossed the spark rocks into the water. "...Thanks." Gazing at the circle of ripples that spread out from the impact, however, something suddenly occurred to him. He slapped a hand very loudly over his face. The stone of his glove made the impact quite painful, much to Riya's alarm. "Spirits, I'm an idiot!" he exclaimed, giving his forehead another slap before she could stop him. "Of course! Idiot!"
"Yuhan...?" Something about the crazy flash of glee in his eyes made Riya sincerely worry for him. "Yuhan," she repeated sternly, "I really don't need to see the entire fountain lit. Especially not if it's going to take you a long time –"
"Hah!" he cut in, the smugness of his smile worrying her even more. "A long time?" Yuhan raised his free hand, his fingers flattening upwards as if lifting a pillow. The dripping spark rocks reemerged from the water, floating high into the air. "Who said anything about it taking a long time?" With a clench of his fist followed by a quick flick of all his digits, the green stone crumbled into several fragments. The little shards zoomed all over the courtyard and flitted about the fountain, until every single candlewick sported a hovering pair above it. Yuhan looked back down at his girl with a grin. "This actually only takes a second."
The courtyard came to life as he finished the sentence. The candle flames danced in unison as they came to life between all the miniature spark rocks, and the warm light filled the fountain, the surrounding lampposts, and Riya's eyes as she gasped in awe. "Oh, Yuhan..." Both her hands slowly covered her mouth as she took in the breathtaking scene.
He turned to face her, and their eyes slowly met again. As he reached forward to tuck a stray lock of auburn behind her ear, her hands slipped back down from her lips and came to a rest against his chest, her fingers curling as he stroked her cheek.
She was literally glowing, and she was so, so beautiful. He savored every sensation as he caressed her face, drawing her closer and never forgetting the smooth, pure surface of her skin. Though his eyes were shut, he could feel her soft lips smiling beneath his own as they touched –
"Morning, lover boy."
Someone had dropped a pair of wooden beams next to his bed, and the sharp noise as they hit the floor woke Yuhan with a very unpleasant throb of his head. His sluggish eyes narrowed at the mocha-skinned face scrutinizing him from above. "Morning, grumpy girl."
The young woman rolled her turquoise eyes and rested a mitten-covered hand on the waist of her lavender coat. "Got your stretcher ready." One of her fur-trimmed boots lifted to point towards the beams, which sat a meter apart and spanned soft hide between them.
Before long, an unenthusiastic Yuhan and the equally dull waterbender made their way to the nearest healing hut, the former being carried along by a couple of helpers. The latter sported long, raven black hair braided to the side, and a zigzag-patterned headband adorned her head with two pom-poms resting above her ears. The long braid hanging over her shoulder had a wide tribal bead finishing off the tail. She flicked it occasionally, as if hoping some passerby would notice.
Doona was always this way. She was a short, slender young woman, delicate in the kind of way one admires an exquisite, fragile vase behind a glass case. As a former professional brain-analyzer/destroyer and all, Yuhan knew her type from the moment he looked upon her irritable face. She was young and sheltered, probably well off from the looks of it. As a Lower Ring-born citizen, Yuhan never wished poverty upon anyone – but an unfortunate side effect of living comfortably, on the other hand, was that it often spoiled people. Made them care about really random things...like Hiroshu and his food...
Doona gave a disapproving scoff at some Water Tribe girls walking along the other side of the icy river. "Ugh, hair loopies? Those are so mainstream."
"So are girls who call things mainstream," Yuhan commented from behind.
That was the closest thing to a conversation the two of them had the entire morning. Everything else was the usual protocol. He was laid down on his stomach so that his shoulders hung over the edge of his stretcher, allowing his limp arms to dip into the glowing fountain below. A bored Doona knelt beside him, drawing up the water with a graceful stroke of her arms, creating the illusion that it was alive and climbing up over his shoulders. "Where does it hurt?" The water began to glow white.
Doona rolled her eyes. "Yes, having every bone in your arm broken probably does hurt everywhere." There was an odd silence. "But I can't help you unless you tell me where it hurts most, okay?" she continued, a little softer.
"...Sure." Yuhan took in a deep breath and braced himself as he dared to twitch one of arms upwards, ever so slightly – and immediately regretted it. "OW – BLASTED REALM OF KOH, DAMMIT –"
The fire shot his nerves and burned through all of his veins like a cruel, ruthless tree of lightning bolts, and he'd have fallen facefirst into the pool had Doona not lunged and yanked him back in time. "Calm down!" she hissed, trying her best to keep the glowing water steady as she held him in place with her other arm. "Okay – does this help?" The glow seemed to concentrate into one spot beneath the water, compressing into a tight ball as it travelled slowly from his shoulder down to his forearm.
Yuhan's eyes, which had squeezed shut from the pain, slowly relaxed again as his healer worked. "Yeah... Can you hold it right there?" he mumbled, as the glowing ball hovered over his wrist.
"Not a problem," Doona replied, slowly loosening her grip around him when she was sure he'd regained his own balance. She shuffled a little as she repositioned both hands to focus the water around his wrist, then paused when she felt a familiar obstruction. Her face scrunched. "Your bracelet." There was no mistaking that strange little gold disc, its distorted reflection flashing at her through the water. Doona's voice suddenly picked up a curt note. "You know, the flow of energy between you and the water could go a lot faster if you'd take that blasted thing off for once -"
"FOR THE LAST TIME, the bracelet stays!" boomed Yuhan's voice, so loud and sudden that it startled his healer and caused the water around his arms to disperse with a plop. He'd twisted his head around to glare at her with the crazed, demented expression that the entire healing hut had come to dread.
There was a heavy silence that took hold of the entire room, then the sound of frantic footsteps approaching. "Doona!" snapped an elderly woman.
The healer turned around and immediately lowered her head. "Lady Yugoda."
Yuhan twisted his face away from the old woman he knew was scrutinizing them both from above. It hadn't taken him long to figure out that she was a healing figurehead around here – and she was one of the people he least wanted to see.
Yugoda was soft-spoken but stern, with her short gray hair pulled up into a tight half-bun framed by two thick loops of braid. Her age and wrinkles could never diminish the healer's light within her bright blue eyes, and her outfit stood out among the other healers due to the bright blue patterns that ran across its chest as well as the string of pointed teeth that adorned her neck. She glanced towards Yuhan for a moment before flicking her eyes back to his healer with a frown. "What did I tell you about being gentle with our patients?"
Doona lifted her arms to protest. "B-but I just – all I did was –"
"You have no idea what the boy has been through nor should you judge him for his preferences," cut in the old healer, crossing her arms. "As one of my most advanced students, I'd have expected some more patience from you."
"That aside, I believe his session with you for today has reached its time. I'll be taking him under my care momentarily." Yugoda turned towards the nervous assistants that had been watching the scene. "Please escort young Mr. Tsen back to his room and allow him to rest. Have him ready by the Spirit Oasis within an hour." She smiled sadly as she faced her student again, who'd gone bitterly silent. "My dear, please understand. A healer is a bearer of light. Don't extinguish yours by falling prey to the darkness of others." She chuckled a little as both Yuhan and Doona shot disapproving scowls at each other.
The day stretched on as Hiroshu ran trivial errands here and there throughout the Rings of Ba Sing Se, with Joo Dee by his side smiling creepily as always. As the sun finally sank beneath the horizon and vanished from sight, stars began to sprinkle the night sky. The two eventually came to a stop before a splendid array of lanterns, which were suspended within a circular fountain and glowing throughout the clearing atop a ring of decorated posts.
"Ever seen this, Suyin? It's the Firelight Fountain." Hiroshu looked over and sighed at her oblivious eyes. "That question was meant for you, Joo Dee."
"Oh!" exclaimed the young woman, who'd been straightening out her scarf and looked up at the sound of her name. "I have studied the entire city's geography several times, sir. No location is unfamiliar to me, so yes, I know the Fire Fountain very well." She looked quite pleased with herself, though her grin faltered a bit when Hiroshu didn't smile back. "What is the matter, sir?"
The Dai Li agent gazed ahead at the little lights floating across the water, giving a long and wistful sigh. "I wish you could appreciate how pretty this is." The quiet sentence drifted into the night like the little wisps of smoke that the wind carried away from the candles.
"I never knew how pretty that fountain was," she said breathlessly. They held hands as they strolled back into the shambles of the Lower Ring beneath the moonlight.
"Makes all the difference when it's lit, eh?" Yuhan puffed out his chest, milking every chance to enjoy the one evening in which he'd actually been smooth for once. He felt the damp end of a stem poking his forearm from inside his dark sleeve and held back a grin.
Riya came to a stop in front of her door, sighing as she always did in anticipation of his departure. She clasped his hand a little tighter. "S-so... How long this time?" Of course, she was referring to how long he'd be forced to stay holed up inside his headquarters. Free evenings like this one were a rare luxury.
She looked up when she felt his fingers slip away from hers – and when he replaced them with a long, smooth stem. Riya's gaze followed the green stalk up to the silky, curling petals of a freshly picked panda lily. She couldn't help smiling.
"I'll make Hiroshu cover for me at headquarters one of these days," said Yuhan, taking her hand again and gently folding her fingers over the stem. "All it takes is a box of dumplings to bribe him," he added with a chuckle. "But I'll be back sooner than you think, Riya. I..." He became aware of something very odd in the air as the hazel glow of her eyes locked with his emerald. Something warm and fuzzy, like the stars themselves had multiplied in the sky. Their fingers were entwined around the panda lily, and neither of them moved. "I..." The golden disc of his bracelet twinkled in the moonlight. "I...I'll come back for you soon, Riya. I promise."
Riya looked back down at the bloom of her panda lily, knowing that it would be the only proof for weeks that he'd ever been here. "Okay."
Yuhan bent down to kiss her forehead. Only the quiet rustling of petals as he finally let go of her hand seemed to whisper the words that he'd really meant to say.
... ...I promise... ...
The voice was warm and gentle as can be, and yet his entire body stiffened up with terror at the very sound of it. Yugoda was only trying to help, he knew that, but he was simply too frightened to care. He tried to pretend that he was still asleep, though he knew she'd still have dragged him out either way.
"Yuhan, dear, it's time to visit the holy oasis." Yugoda was wiping away the cold beads of sweat that had already begun to run down his temples, trying her best to calm the wide, trembling eyes that stared back up at her.
The truth was that they were already inside the Spirit Oasis. Yuhan had recognized the lush grass brushing against his back immediately and knew he was trapped. The only way to get him inside here these days, after all, was sadly to carry him while he was unconscious from the previous healing session. Yugoda had laid him bare upon the grass, save for a woolly pair of trousers, and his stretcher was propped against the wall of the exit. His head lay about a meter away from the pond in the middle of the oasis, in which he could make out two strange shapes of black and white circling around each other.
Yugoda rested upon her knees, bowing low before the black and white shapes and murmuring a prayer. Then she straightened herself up, taking in a deep breath before drawing a thin tendril of water from the pond, her arms gliding through the air like delicate ribbons. Yuhan watched her silently, trying to remember the things he'd heard in his periods of half-consciousness about this oasis. Something about the moon and ocean spirits. He'd always doubted the legends, though he himself had been spooked that one evening he and Hiroshu witnessed the sky turn red, then pitch black in the middle of a late night patrol. Spirits were not to be trifled with.
He was supposedly blessed to be alive, thanks to said spirits. But he began to long for the alternative when he felt the cold water gather beneath his head, the current sweeping across his temples and blinding his vision with its glow.
"Are you ready?" Yugoda asked softly.
"No." Yuhan was trembling, whimpering his reply like a frightened child.
Yugoda brushed some of the sweaty locks of hair out of his eyes, with almost motherly tenderness. It reminded him of Ning, which only caused the tears to begin welling immediately. "I know it's hard for you, and I wish there were an easier way...but you have to be strong, dear." Yugoda smiled assuredly at him from above. "Be brave, and do not focus on the darkness in your life. Think of light, and think of happiness."
That was what she always told him before the nightmare began. Think happy. Yuhan tried his best to picture the glow of the fountain in Riya's eyes, her smile whenever he appeared with another panda lily, even her screeches of concern over his stubbornness not to leave the volcano alone...anything with Riya was happy....
"Yuhan, the Earth King has invited you to Lake Laogai."
Riya's face suddenly transformed within his own memory. It was horrifying. Her sweet eyes became hollow and possessed. The ugly yellow seemed to sweep over her humble outfit, the green scarf swirling around her neck like a chain. "The Earth King invites you to Lake Laogai," said Joo Dee, grinning at him from the darkness. "Won't you see to your duties?"
Yuhan spoke out loud, no longer aware of Yugoda's presence. "G-go away, Joo Dee," he tried to say with confidence, though she only laughed at his fear. "That's not even your name."
"Why do you resist? Don't you want this pain to be gone? All that matters is your duty," said Joo Dee, stroking a finger beneath his chin frighteningly slow. "All of your pain, all of that sadness, it can all be over in just a second..." she whispered, her painted red lips only millimeters away from his. "We can give you anything you want...I can be by your side, together in Ba Sing Se –"
"No!" Yuhan's eyes flared. His fingers somehow found his bracelet, gripping it tightly despite the wave of fire that automatically shot through his arm. "I want Riya! Not you! Not you and your stupid lake – go party by yourself in Lake Laogai!"
Without warning, Joo Dee dissolved into thin air, and he suddenly realized that he was looking into the kind face of Yugoda, not the psycho in a yellow uniform. "Wonderful, Yuhan!" The healer was beaming with both pride and relief. "That was the fastest you've ever dispelled the mental trigger! It gives me great hope for the others in Ba Sing Se that you speak of, who are in need of help like you."
Joo Dee and Hiroshu stood there like awkward statues as the floating candles drifted across the shimmering water. The former merely smiled at everything around her since Ba Sing Se was of course, beautiful in every corner, while the latter seemed to be contemplating something difficult.
A sigh finally broke the silence. "Joo Dee?"
"I have an important task for you."
A task! The young woman immediately lit up with glee, and it was sadly the closest thing to a genuine reaction to anything Hiroshu had seen all day. "Anything you wish, sir! How may I assist you tonight?"
"Well... The Earth King has invited you to Lake Laogai." Hiroshu's eyes disappeared beneath the brim of his hat, too ashamed to face her as he uttered the command.
She went very still, almost causing the agent to shudder from the unnatural sound of her voice – even more unnatural than usual, that is. "I am honored to accept his invitation."
Hiroshu bit his lip, but there was no other way. "First, you must tell no one of this mission nor speak of it after you complete the task, not even to me. You'll forget about it all once it's done, understand?"
He grimaced when it occurred to him that she'd stopped blinking from the moment he uttered the trigger. To imagine that his poor patrol partner used to have to see things like this every day, for hours... "So, I need you to find the location of a prisoner. He's, um... I believe he's still within the custody of the Dai Li."
Joo Dee was grinning – almost literally – from ear to ear. "That should be easy for me, sir!" she laughed. "We guides tend to the meals of Ba Sing Se's convicts daily."
"Exactly." Hiroshu could already feel the dreadful anxiety churning in the pit of his stomach.
Yuhan was shaking all over before the worst of it even began. His eyes squeezed shut, and he clasped the sympathetic hand Yugoda offered even if it wouldn't help much. "Try to stay calm, and it will hurt less every time," said the old healer. The water began to glow once more, like a dazzling pillow supporting the weight of his head. "Are you ready?"
"Never." Despite everything, he took in a heavy breath. "...But I have to."
"You are strong, child." Yugoda herself felt her heart breaking every time she had to begin this. "You are so strong, Yuhan, so determined... Just like your mother. Can you see her smiling at you, admiring what a brave boy she's raised?"
Yuhan's eyes cracked wide open. He was in another world – the dark, painful one he never wanted to visit again. No, his mother was nowhere to be found. Apparently she was supposed to be here, but all he saw was Riya with that cursed dagger.
"Goodnight, Agent Tsen."
Yuhan stared into her lifeless eyes as her crumpled body hit the ground, despite the pain that stabbed through his chest. "Y-you're not real. This didn't happen."
He almost cried out in terror shortly after finishing the sentence. After all, Joo Dee's death wasn't real – but someone else's was. There were two bloodshot eyes staring back at him. One was so swollen that it could hardly open any longer, while the other defied the sting of hot blood that constantly leaked down into it. The blood was dripping from a disheveled lock of black hair, originating from a deep gash somewhere in the scalp. "H-Hannie, dear..." Ning Tsen was forced to stay upright due to the agent holding her up by thick wad of hair; her body was otherwise battered and rendered useless.
"Mom!" he screamed. He felt himself uttering the words as if he were inside a nightmare, somehow reliving the memory of himself and his mother through his own eyes. "What did they do to you?!" The sickening realization that there was no way she'd leave this chamber alive drained suddenly drained the life out of his voice. "Oh, Spirits – M-mom...I never wanted this – I'm so sorry –"
"Don't cry, Hannie." Ning didn't really seem to be listening to anything he said, as if she were only aware that her little boy was in tears. "Shhh, it'll be alright... Don't cry. Don't say sorry." As she continued, though, it became harder to keep herself together. "You're a grown man, now, Yuhan. Be a big boy and don't cry in front of your mother." She had to swallow back a painful lump in her throat as her eyes went damp. "You're big and strong and you make me so, so proud..."
His flooded eyes flung more tears across the floor as his head shook rapidly. "I-I'm so sorry, Mom - I should've visited you more, I should've written every day –"
"Shhh, what did I just say about not apologizing?" Ning put on her best soothing voice, despite her own temptation to sob with him. "Listen to your mother – don't cry..."
"M-mom..." Yuhan couldn't stand it any longer. He wanted out. He didn't care what was the truth and what was false, he just wanted the pain to end –
"Hello, Agent Tsen."
He looked back up and would've jumped in fright at the sight of Joo Dee's grinning face, had he not been tied town to his chair. Oh Spirits, no...not the dagger again...
"Do you wish to accept your invitation to Lake Laogai, Agent Tsen? None of this has to happen. It can all be changed, in just a second..." Riya twirled the blade playfully between her fingers, taunting him with her own life as he haggardly stared back.
Yugoda gasped when she noticed his pupils dilating at an alarming rate. "Yuhan! Focus! Don't give into the false memories! You have to focus on where it hurts most, and that's where you'll find the truth!" The water concentrated beneath his head, its glow even brighter than before, but he was quickly slipping further and further away.
Green light illuminated the metallic complex, deep beneath the Palace grounds. The occasional chirp of a cave hopper echoed throughout the hallway, but the sound always seemed to dissolve eventually as if there simply weren't enough life to sustain it.
The stillness of the air down here was frightening. One wouldn't have even guessed that there was a prisoner hidden behind that rusty metal door. Hiroshu double-checked the roll of parchment in his hands, making sure that Joo Dee had found the right cell. It was actually the fifth or sixth time he double-checked; he was stalling, and his breaths were cold and nervous.
Finally, he forced himself to knock – which he didn't know why, since it wasn't as if he were visiting a neighbor. But he knocked anyway. And there was no answer.
Hiroshu sighed as he twisted the key inside the lock. The door felt ten times heavier than usual, or maybe he just really didn't want to open it. Yet, he knew it had to be done.
Two emerald irises peered back up at him as the green light cracked through the open door. They were tired and weary, tired of life itself, but they still had enough strength to fill with hate at the very sight of his uniform. And they stayed silent.
The agent didn't know what to say. He just gazed back in the heavy silence for a good few seconds.
"Hiroshu, right?" The prisoner spoke very slowly, his voice low and venomous.
"Y-yes. Mr. Tsen." Hiroshu already regretted being here.
"What do you want?" Yunxu Tsen's eyes narrowed into emerald daggers, much like Yuhan's threatening glares – only with a very real intention to kill.
What was he supposed to say? Was there even a good way to say it? Curse it all. Hiroshu mumbled the only thing he could think of. "Mr. Tsen, I...need to tell you something about your son."
Yunxu gave a cold, demented laugh that sent chills down the agent's spine. "My son? You want to talk to me about my son? What, did you lot finally let him die?" he spat. The agent stared back in horror. "When's it my turn, eh?" Yunxu's eyes were still swollen from the tears of loss, and they immediately watered up again as soon as he finished the sentence. His hate, however, quickly hardened his face once more.
"N-no, Yuhan's not...dead, sir," Hiroshu stammered, his hands shaking as the prisoner glowered back. "I helped him. He's...somewhere safe right now. I think."
Yunxu turned his back to the agent with a loud clatter of his chains. "I'm not going to take anything you lot have to say seriously. After everything I've seen you do –"
"Mr. Tsen, I'm sorry!" Hiroshu blurted out. He just wanted to get this over with, and run far away from this place.
Yunxu rolled his eyes as he turned back around. "Oh sure, that fixes everything doesn't it?" He spat at the ground, centimeters away from the agent's feet.
"No, Mr. Tsen, I have to apologize and – I'm sorry about..." Hiroshu's head dropped as his shoulders sagged. "...Your wife. I'm so sorry."
Something dark and icy took hold of the entire cell at that moment. Yunxu's eyes glinted with a blackness too terrifying to put into words. "Don't you dare mention Ning in front of me," he growled, shaking and boiling with rage. "I heard her, you know. I heard both of them – my own wife and son. They were in the cell next to me. The whole time!"
Hiroshu cringed at the broken sound of his voice. "I-I know, Mr. Tsen..." was all he could manage to say.
"Then for the love of the Spirits, what do you want?!" Yunxu's fists were balled so tightly that it caused his chains to tremble.
"I-I...it was... It was my fault, okay? It was mine. Not Yuhan's." Hiroshu spilled it all out in fear that he'd run away before he could finish.
Yunxu Tsen went deadly still.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Tsen. I'm sorry, I..." It was almost the same as when he'd had to break the news to Yuhan, the same demented emerald eyes staring back at him in disbelief. "They – you gotta understand, they were going to take Riya to punish him a-and I thought that if I hid her they'd stop trying b-but then...they took..." He lost the words when the prisoner slowly turned back around to face the wall and simply sat there. Still as a statue.
"Mr. Tsen...I..." Hiroshu wished that Yuhan's father would say something. Anything. Hit him at least. Yell back profanities. Express his hatred for the crime to his heart's desire. Anything. But there was only stillness. Only silence. It was excruciating.
The Dai Li agent staggered back out the door. Right before running, however, he murmured one last thing, more to himself than anyone else. "You raised a great son. Greater than I'll ever be."
Even after the door slammed shut, and after it was as dark as it was silent in the cell, Yunxu Tsen still didn't move a muscle. Didn't blink whatsoever. One might have thought that he simply passed away, sitting and facing the wall like that.
Yuhan slowly regained consciousness back inside his room, the small crystalline one with a single window looking out to the city below. Someone was pulling back the thick, navy curtains so that the morning sun reflected off the shiny facets of his bedpost.
"Morning." The girl was facing the window as she spoke, her hands resting over each other as she stood there. He didn't realize it was her until he noticed the side braid with the tribal bead.
"Oh – er, morning Doona." He shifted uncomfortably beneath his blankets as the healer turned to face him.
Doona was watching him with a peculiar gaze. "So. I heard about your session with Yugoda. Among other things. It explains a lot, I guess."
Yuhan turned his eyes away, a little embarrassed. "Oh... What about it?"
"You've..." Doona shuffled her feet in the silence. "You've really gone through a lot of crap, haven't you?"
Yuhan didn't know what to say.
The healer wasn't really waiting for an answer, anyway. She turned on her heel and paced back towards the door. She walked out, but then marched back in against her better judgment, her face twisted with some kind of frustration. "Yuhan, do you miss your mom?" she asked suddenly.
He was caught completely off-guard, and he practically recoiled. "Excuse me?"
"Well, do you?" She was resting a hand on her hip as if it were some everyday, annoying conversation.
The nerve of that girl! "Well gee, what do you think? Wouldn't you?" Yuhan shot back.
Doona stood her ground. "Actually, I wouldn't know. My mom's been dead since the day I was born. Not much to miss."
Yuhan was taken aback. He suddenly forgot how to be angry, and he began to stammer. "Oh...I didn't know that you –"
"At least you had a mom to miss. You could try a little harder to remember her. I know I would."
Doona was gone before he could say another word. Only silence remained as his door shut behind her.
Yuhan slumped back into his pillow.
Hiroshu watched the morning sunrise, though it seemed like he wasn't really aware of his surroundings. His eyes stared forward as he slumped atop the wall of Ba Sing Se, his feet dangling off the edge. He peered down at the agrarian fields below, which were littered with various Fire Nation tents and vehicles that rolled across the grass like little ants.
"What is the matter, sir?" Joo Dee was sitting neatly next to him, with her automatic smile as always.
The Dai Li agent looked at her out of the corner of his eye. "Nothing."
"Okay!" She accepted the answer without a single protest and continued to sit next to him in silence.
Hiroshu leaned over onto his elbows, slowly resting his face upon his hands. "Suyin," he mumbled through the gaps in his fingers. "I have to leave Ba Sing Se today. It's time for me to go back to the Fire Nation."
There was no answer.
"I was talking to you, Joo Dee."
The young woman nodded. "I am sorry that you have to leave this perfect city behind, sir."
"Really?" He lifted his skeptical face again to look at her directly.
Hiroshu shrugged. "Well, you'll have to take care of yourself til I get back, okay? Stay healthy and pretty and keep yourself out of trouble. That's an order."
"I am happy to oblige, sir!" Joo Dee clapped her hands together. "So will you be leaving Ba Sing Se right this instant? I can arrange for your transportation whenever you wish –"
"No, no... Not yet. I have one more stop to make." Hiroshu stared back down at the fields below.
"Where shall we head, then?"
Hiroshu smiled and shook his head. "I'm going alone this time. You just go back home and rest."
"Don't cry, Hannie. Keep your chin up."
Ning's eyes stubbornly refused to leak any tears, no matter how watery they were by now. Not even when she heard the sharp sound of a dagger leaving its sheath from behind her.
Her son, on the other hand, was breaking apart at the very sight of the blade. "Mom, no! No, please no..." he pleaded hopelessly, struggling in vain against his restraints for the hundredth time, oblivious to all the pain in his arms.
A sickly-sweet voice began to speak like a ghostly echo inside the chamber. "Do you wish to be free of this pain, Agent Tsen? Will you accept your invitation to Lake Laogai?"
His eyes red and wild with horror, Yuhan kept watching the blade as Ning's captor polished it carefully against his sleeve.
"Hannie. Listen to me." Ning addressed him sternly, staring hard into his eyes for the last time.
Yuhan didn't hear her. "Do you wish you accept your invitation?" Joo Dee purred into his ear. "Won't you come with me, Agent Tsen? Won't you leave your pain behind...?"
"Yuhan – my son. Look at me." It was astonishing, how well his mother could ignore the reflection of the blade but a few centimeters away.
He didn't care how pathetic he looked. His eyes squeezed shut, streaming the tears like an endless flood as he kept sobbing and shaking his head back and forth. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, Mom..." He began to remember everything he'd never thanked her for. His room back home that was always kept tidy, waiting for him to visit. Her constant letters that she'd left the imprints of her own lips on next to her signature, hoping that he'd actually press it against his forehead like she asked. All those times she pulled him down by his collar, just to straighten out his hat and tidy his hair, beaming at him as if he were the most beautiful child on earth...
At least you had a mom to miss.
Doona's voice haunted him this time, and for some reason he decided not to listen to Joo Dee. Yes...that was right, wasn't it? He wanted to remember his mother. She'd given him a beautiful life, such beautiful memories...and he was going to preserve those memories, no matter how much it hurt. He slowly looked back up to face Ning.
His mother was smiling softly at him. It was the same, proud smile she always wore whenever she straightened his hat. "Yes, that's right..." she said soothingly. "Keep looking at me, Hannie. Listen to your mother...that's a good boy..." The tears finally began to stream down her face when he nodded feebly in reply. "Can you promise me something, Hannie?"
Yuhan choked a little when the blade came to a rest against her neck, his eyes burning with the salty flood. "S-sure, Mom. Anything." He knew that it was real this time. The memory, her smile, and even his tears were far more pure than anything he could recall about Joo Dee's death.
"Okay, Hannie... Promise me this." Ning's lips were trembling, her chest heaving. "W-when you see Riya again, you're going to tell her what a fabulous mother you had."
Yuhan didn't want to think about Riya. She was practically dead to the world, too. "Mom...I...about Riya –" He saw the reflection of the blade in Ning's eyes and stared back down at the ground with another sob. "Okay, fine...I'll do that. I-I promise."
"I wasn't finished yet!" Ning declared, her voice shrill. Her son looked back up with weary eyes. "You're going to tell Riya all about your wonderful, wonderful mother...and then you're going to take her hand...and tell her how much you love her..."
Yuhan nodded tearfully as she spoke.
"And then..." Ning somehow cracked a smile. "Y-you're going to marry her and raise my grandchildren. And you have to do it, because it's my dying wish."
He stared back at her incredulously. "M-mom..." he croaked. "What – I can't...how can you already be thinking about –"
"You said you could promise me anything!" she declared, her voice growing high and unnatural as the agent behind her tightened his grip around the handle of the dagger. "Do I have your word?"
Her son's eyes were frozen upon the dagger. The second agent standing beside him raised his hand to give the signal to her captor. The world was spinning around him as the last seconds began to tick away.
"Yuhan!" Ning screeched. "Listen to your mother! O-one last time...will you listen to your mother? Will you promise?"
Their eyes met again, for just that moment. Yuhan's shoulders were shaking uncontrollably as he finally nodded. Somewhere between his sobs, he barely made out the word, "Yes."
Ning sniffed and gave a single nod of approval, smiling as she took in every detail of his face. "That's my boy...my Yuhan..."
His breath froze inside his throat as he watched her smile.
"I'm so proud of you, Yuhan, my son...so, so proud..." Ning was looking at him so intently, her eyes glimmering as if he were her finest accomplishment, a job well done. It was time for her to retire. "Tell your father –"
The dagger hit its mark. Her body struck the ground before he even knew what happened.
And he began to scream.
The house was as he always remembered it. Tidy beyond all imagination, with every lavish detail polished to perfection. It stood upon a grassy hill, overlooking a splendid view of the Upper Ring.
"Hiro? Is that you?"
A short, stocky woman with sage green eyes and fair brown hair scurried out from the garden. She still held a watering can in one hand and held up her patterned apron with the other as she ran.
Hiroshu stared down at his feet.
"Honey, what is it?" called another voice from inside the house.
"Our son's back!"
There was a loud crash as the second person barged out of the door. "Hiroshu's here? Where?"
The voices clamored around him as the excited footsteps drew nearer and nearer, but he couldn't stop staring at the grass below.
All at once however, everything grew strangely silent when his parents reached within a few meters of him. They just stood there, watching him and waiting for him to speak first. He could sense their fear, their uncertainty of what they were allowed to say to him.
His mother made the first attempt at conversation. "Hiro, sweetie...what brings you back?" She swallowed nervously. "H-how's the Fire Nation? Is it pretty?"
She flinched when he suddenly snapped his face up to look at her. "O-oh, I'm sure it's wonderful," she added quickly. "We've been real happy with the changes here. Our lives have never been better." It was as if she were afraid that he wasn't the only agent listening to her speak, that any word spoken wrong could be the end of her.
He couldn't speak. The agent simply stood there, watching the work of his own organization terrorizing his own family into false support of the Fire Nation. He thought of Yuhan, the only kid brave enough to try fighting back. He remembered the look in his eyes, freshly heartbroken, that night he turned to him and asked the forbidden question.
"Hiroshu... Is this peace?"
His mother was alarmed when her son, usually so bold and confident, staggered forward and collapsed into her arms, weeping like a small child. They both sank into the grass underneath his weight. "Hiro! What's the matter, sweetie? Oh, Spirits..." She held him steady, letting him sob into her lap as she ran a soothing hand over his back. "Shhh, everything's going to be alright, my little Hiro...shhh..."
Both mother and father were equally confused as they glanced at one another in concern, their weeping son being the only sound breaking the silence.
Doona held the water steady over his arms, concentrating the glow around his sore spots as usual. "You're awfully quiet today," she remarked.
"Yeah. I guess I don't have much to say." Yuhan looked up at her and sighed. "Except... Thank you."
She hadn't been expecting that. Doona leaned back a little, her eyes widened and her cheeks flushing involuntarily as she met his gaze. "Oh? Uhm, yeah. Sure. Anytime."
Yuhan slumped back down and faced the pool of water below, observing the reflection of his face. "I guess I really do need to try harder to get better. Sorry for being difficult."
Doona cleared her throat awkwardly. "Oh no, I mean I wasn't that understanding either –"
"I wasn't being easy for anyone to understand, Doona." Yuhan smiled grimly. Even so, she couldn't help noticing how different he looked when he smiled. How...nice he looked. "But anyway... Remembering what happened to my mom was hard, but it also made me remember that I have important things to do. It's going to be a rough road." He closed his eyes and thought of the Firelight Fountain, the panda lily, and Ba Sing Se, his home of imperfections.
I'll come back for you soon, Riya. I promise.
Hiroshu watched the rings of Ba Sing Se grow smaller and smaller below him, the clouds almost obscuring it from view.
An agent came up from behind. "Homesick already?"
He turned around and shrugged. "I'll definitely miss the food."
Quan laughed and shook his head. "Of course. Well, dinner's almost ready if you want to head inside with the rest of us. Airship engineers actually cook surprisingly well."
Hiroshu nodded and turned back around. He could make out the last traces of Ba Sing Se's rings disappearing from sight, his home of imperfections. A lot of imperfections. But it was home nonetheless. He could still feel his mother's parting kiss on his cheek. He was glad that he'd come back for her.
He would forever deny crying like a baby. Now was not the time to be a wimp. He had work to do. Hiroshu slipped his special Pai Sho tile out of his sleeve, flipped it in the air, and caught it again. Now was not the time for regrets.
For the first time, he thought about how proud his parents would be one day. And for some reason, he was positive that Suyin would be proud too.
He wasn't the only son looking up at the sky with grim determination at that moment.
Author's Comments and Trivia
- Many thanks to for being my scene-beta this chapter. He saved many moments from becoming disastrous!
- This is probably the only time you'll ever see Hiroshu cry.
- No, Doona and Yuhan will not be a thing, thankyouverymuch.
- Doona's name changed several times before the author was able to make up her mind. It was originally 'Sohki.'
- The author tormented by stalling when she couldn't hit publish, because she didn't know what to name this chapter. He yelled, "Oh come on! Name it Pancakes!"
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